September marks the arrival of everyone’s favorite season, but it also marks the designated month for raising awareness of prostate cancer, gynecologic cancers and childhood obesity.
Today, let’s focus on gynecologic cancers.
Gynecologic cancers are cancers affecting a woman’s reproductive organs. The five main types are cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar. By the end of 2014, an expected 94,990 cases of gynecologic cancer will have been diagnosed, and 28,790 women are expected to have died from these diseases.
What can you do? There’s a lot that you can do.
Here are a few ways that you can take action to protect yourself from gynecologic cancers.
- Know your “normal.” Everyone is different. Pay attention to how your body normally behaves and make note of any changes, like irregular bowels movements, itching or pain, especially if they last two weeks or longer.
- Know what’s never, never normal. Be familiar with red flags, warning signs and symptoms. Some symptoms of gynecologic cancers are: abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge, pelvic pain, abdominal or back pain, bloating, changes in bathroom habits, itching or burning of the vulva and changes in the skin or vulva color. The CDC has a great chart showing symptoms for gynecologic cancers. Each type has different symptoms.
- Take care of and pride in yourself. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can reduce your risk for many cancers and make you feel good about yourself. When you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to pay attention to what’s going on with your body. (Example: I like to pretend that my body doesn’t exist after “Taco Night.”)
- Practice safe sex. One of the many reasons to practice safe sex is to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV causes more than 20,000 cancers in women every year. Many of its strains are spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal and oral sex. Keep in mind for when/if you have children: HPV vaccines are recommended for girls and boys at age 11 or 12.
- Get screened for HPV. Women in their twenties should have Pap tests every 3 years (this is a test your OB/GYN can give you). From age 35-65, women should have a Pap test combined with an HPV test every 5 years, or a Pap test every 3 years. Note: HPV tests can only find cervical HPV in women.
- Find a doctor that you trust. Going to the gynecologist can be scary for women. Don’t settle for the first doctor that you find in a Google search. Minimize your discomfort by connecting with a doctor that you can really talk to about any issues that you may be having (I use ZocDoc to find doctors in my area who take my health insurance). Future/current mothers: encourage your daughter to visit the gynecologist when the time comes – either once she becomes sexually active or once she turns 21, whichever comes first. Reassure her that it’s nowhere near as scary as TV shows and movies make it out to be.
All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers and your risk increases with your age. Make it a lifelong process to care for, love and familiarize yourself with your body. Women face a lot of obstacles that we can’t control, but one thing that we can control is our health.
You are your own best health advocate.